The Great Conversation: Wisdom—Part I

The Great Conversation:
Wisdom—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

What is wisdom?

That universal and most venerable source of definitions, Google, informs us that wisdom is “the quality of being wise.” No linguist could cavil at this; yet the less-specialized student has been known, even after reading this definition, to have a certain curiosity that (according to them) has not been wholly slaked by it.

The word wise itself is quite ancient. As everyone knows, a large majority of English words come to us from Latin, French, or Greek (plus large smatterings from Norse, Hebrew, the indigenous languages of the Americas, and many other sources); this, however, is part of our native Anglo-Saxon or “Old English” vocabulary, in the form wīs.* Yet when the historical Anglo-Saxons were newcomers to the island of Britain, reputedly making war against Arthur and his knights, this word was already many centuries old. English—like Greek, Latin, Norse, Russian, Persian, and dozens more—is an Indo-European language, and the ancestor of the word wise goes all the way back to the speakers of proto-Indo-European in the early Bronze Age, or even the late Stone Age—around 3500 BC, give or take a solid thousand years. Their word for “to see” was weyd-, or something very like it; through century upon century of shifts in pronunciation and division of one region from another, this weyd- became the Latin vidēre (of the same meaning), the ancient Greek οἶδα (whose meaning had drifted slightly to “to know,” and is loosely related to the word idea), and eventually of the Anglo-Saxon witan (meaning “to know” or “to feel”), from which we get both wise and wit. Two near-synonyms of wisdom, knowledge and cunning, also have Indo-European roots—funnily enough, both from the same word meaning “to know,” gneh3 (and speaking personally, the present writer is rather relieved that nowadays we do not have to try and pronounce whatever sound h3 is supposed to be in casual conversation).

But of course, however diverting, all this does only divert us. We are no closer to knowing what wisdom means, simply by knowing that our remote ancestors may have been vexed by the same question. There are several senses in which the idea appears in our intellectual tradition; many of these senses groan with age as much as the word itself. (The single most ancient piece of literature on our Author Bank, the Epic of Gilgamesh, takes the form of a multi-pronged adventure to the edge of the world, yet it is in the end a piece of wisdom literature.) Over our final series on the Great Conversation, we will discuss six of these varieties of wisdom, enumerated as follows.

1. Wisdom is knowledge. This is probably the oldest version of what it means to be wise. Since a great deal of knowledge comes to us through sight, words for seeing are frequently roots, synonyms, or metaphors for knowing. Of course, it doesn’t take long for knowledge to feel like it needs distinctions drawn within it—what is known “at first glance” may not be the whole story. The person who sees a spider for the first time will probably be revolted by it, but the person who has seen many spiders over the years probably knows that despite its appearance, it is quite unlikely to harm you and fairly likely to kill pesky or truly harmful insects; both of these people see the spider, but the second sees it in a different way, or with different eyes. Yet curiously, as knowledge increases in complexity and the wise become more sophisticated, an opposite feeling emerges …

The disease having been caused by allowing cleverness to displace wisdom, no amount of clever research is likely to produce a cure.

2. Wisdom is simplicity. The obvious reply to the spider example above is that of the black widow. This would seem to vindicate our natural revulsion to spiders; if you will, it’s a lethal example of “had it right the first time.” This indicates the value of knowing particular facts and when to apply them, as distinct from generalities. It can be developed in a few different directions, some of which bend toward our next category …

3. Wisdom is virtue. This is the classic notion of wisdom, common to both the Judaic and the Græco-Roman ideas of the virtues. The difference between wisdom being interchangeable with virtue and being one among the virtues has been a topic of debate among Christians; to some degree, the next entry in the list represents a man who is wise (or could be wise) without being interested in the other virtues.

4. Wisdom as wits. The many trickster figures in art and literature represent this type of wisdom: Odysseus, Loki, many versions of the Fae, the coyote in several Native American mythologies, even Bugs Bunny. One beloved example is Hershel of Ostropol, who was a historical person (though many fictional tales have been attached to him!)—a prankster from eighteenth-century Poland, who was more or less the “court jester” to the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.† This bears some kinship with …

5. Wisdom as poetic imagination. The idea that bards and poets are (or at least can be) among the wise, or have their own type of wisdom, is quite ancient too: by some accounts, the druids of classical Gaul and the British Isles did not firmly distinguish between poetry and magic. This is subtly different from …

6. Wisdom as mystical insight. Like the idea of wisdom as a virtue above, this is something that can be found both in the Hebrew tradition and in the Greek (though the forms and styles are different in certain respects). St. Paul’s oratorical flourish to the church at Corinth is exemplary:

We speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world … even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. … But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.

But we will have to revisit that. The apostle’s emphasis on this divine wisdom being hidden or even seeming like foolishness brings us to our seventh theme:

7. Wisdom as ignorance. This one is, to say the least, counterintuitive! The theme, or the reality that necessitates it, is well expressed in the word sophomore, which comes from Greek roots meaning “wise fool.” But, in the spirit of ignorance being a form of wisdom, we won’t say what it means here—you’ll just have to find out.

Part II to come!

Suggested reading:
Plato, Protagoras
St. Paul of Tarsus, The Second Letter to the Corinthians
The Thousand and One Nights
St. Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle
Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Eric Kimmel, The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol

*Pronounce wīs as if it were written “weece,” and you’ve got it.
†The Baal Shem Tov (also known as the Besht, and originally named Israel Ben Eliezer [1698-1760]) is held to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a movement within Haredi or “ultra-Orthodox” Judaism that lays great emphasis upon personal piety and mystical interpretation of the Tanakh.
‡I Corinthians 2.6-10.


Gabriel Blanchard is a former sophomore and current editor at large for the CLT. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look back at some of our previous Great Conversation installments, on topics ranging from causality to change to honor to physics to rhetoric. Thank you for reading the Journal!

Published on 7th September, 2023.

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